Republicans are confronting an insurrection on the right that is angry enough to imperil their grip on Congress, and senior party strategists have concluded that the conservative base loathes its leaders in Washington the same way it detested President Barack Obama.
The defeat of Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., in a primary election Tuesday night appears to have ushered in a season of savage nomination fights and activist-led attacks on party leaders, especially on Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader. Despite enjoying the strong backing of President Donald Trump, Strange lost by a wide margin to Roy Moore, a firebrand religious activist and former judge, who denounced Strange as a puppet of the Senate leader.
Strange’s demise, senior party strategists and conservative activists said Wednesday, makes it likelier that Republican incumbents in the House and Senate will face serious primary challenges in 2018, fueled by anger at the party’s apparent ineptitude at wielding power in Washington. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and a vehement antagonist of the party establishment, said Tuesday night that he intended to target Republican senators in Mississippi, Arizona and Nevada for defeat.
And that rebellion could spread.
Trent Lott, a former Senate Republican leader, was blunt: “Every Republican senator had better get prepared for a challenge from the far right.”
If nothing else, divisive intraparty battles could cost party donors tens of millions of dollars and weaken Republicans’ position in a year when Democrats were already poised to make gains, at least in the House. They could also reshape the party’s agenda, driving it further in the direction of Trump’s strain of nationalism rather than the more conventional, business-oriented agenda espoused by McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Republicans increasingly worry that their base’s contempt for McConnell is more potent than its love for Trump. McConnell could be an anchor around incumbents in the same fashion as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, is routinely used to undermine Democratic candidates. The loudest applause Moore received during an election-eve rally came when he declared, “Mitch McConnell needs to be replaced.”
In a memo about the Alabama election that circulated among Republican donors, Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely allied with McConnell, said primary voters were intensely angry and inclined to blame Republicans for dysfunction in Washington.
“The Republican Congress has replaced President Obama as the boogeyman for conservative GOP primary voters,” Law wrote, cautioning that the president was helping to amplify that point of view: “This narrative is driven by Trump himself, and it resonates with primary voters who believe the Republican Congress ‘isn’t doing enough’ (as we frequently heard in focus groups) to advance the president’s agenda.”
Law, whose group spent more than $10 million to prop up Strange, said in the memo that Republicans had been damaged by “the Obamacare repeal fiasco” and that they should expect to fight hard-right primary candidates in Mississippi and Nevada, among other states. Law derided Bannon for being focused mainly on “promoting his own brand” and discounted him as a major force in Alabama.
The convulsive mood on the right has considerably reshaped the political map for 2018, making a favorable list of Senate races somewhat less hospitable to Republicans. Two Republican senators, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, have seen their poll numbers collapse after clashing with Trump and embracing unpopular legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
In Tennessee, Sen. Bob Corker, a well-liked lawmaker from a traditional Republican mold, on Tuesday became the first Senate Republican to announce that he would not seek re-election in 2018. His departure is likely to yield a contentious Republican primary, much like the one just concluded in Alabama.
The Alabama race “is going to inspire a lot of people,” Bannon said in an interview in Montgomery on Tuesday night.
Bannon said he had held discussions about the Tennessee race with Mark E. Green, a state senator who was nominated to be Trump’s Army secretary before withdrawing after facing scrutiny for his past statements about gay and transgender people. Tennessee could be the site of the next major populist-versus-establishment conflagration if Gov. Bill Haslam or former University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning responds to entreaties to enter the race.
Bannon also said he aimed to oust Heller, Flake and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Ed Martin, a former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, said Bannon had also inquired about the state’s Senate race, in which the Republican establishment has rallied around Josh Hawley, the state attorney general, as an opponent for Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat.
After leaving the White House last month, Bannon returned to his perch at Breitbart News and has been using the hard-right website and his close ties to the Mercer family, New York-based conservative donors, to create a new, insurgent power base.
It remains unlikely that Republicans will lose control of the Senate next year, because the playing field of races is tilted so strongly in their direction. The party is defending just eight seats, mostly in strongly conservative states, compared with 25 seats held by Democrats or independents who caucus with them.
Yet the pitfalls Republicans have encountered so far have created unexpected opportunities for Democrats, and the party is assessing even long-shot races where there is the possibility of an upset. In Tennessee, a solidly Republican state, several more Democrats are considering the race for Corker’s seat: Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga said in a statement that he would explore a bid “in the coming weeks,” and state Senator Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville legislator, is also eyeing the race. One Democrat, James Mackler, a lawyer and Iraq war veteran, is already running.
And in conservative Alabama, both Democrats and Republicans believe Moore’s nomination may put the seat at risk in a Dec. 12 general election, when he faces Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor who is the Democratic nominee.
Jones is scheduled to campaign with former Vice President Joe Biden next week and said in an interview Tuesday that he would seek support from Republican and independent voters who may be repelled by Moore, who was removed from the bench for defying Supreme Court rulings and has called in the past for banning homosexuality.
In a sign of Moore’s vulnerability, Law’s memo described him as off-putting to “business-oriented Republicans,” who “recoil at Moore’s grandstanding.”
It is not only Republican senators who could find themselves cast out by conservative challengers next year. A parade of candidates, aligning themselves explicitly with Trump, is lining up to challenge House Republicans whom they view as insufficiently loyal to the president. If enough Republican lawmakers are ousted in primaries, or forced to spend millions just to secure renomination, it could give Democrats a better chance to pick up the two dozen seats they need to take a majority.
“I think incumbents are extremely vulnerable,” said Barry Moore, an Alabama state representative challenging Rep. Martha Roby, a Republican who called on Trump to withdraw from the presidential race late last fall. “The American people are sending a message that there’s nothing getting done in D.C., and we’re going to have to replace a lot of those people.”
Still, the alarm is most acute in the Senate. Party strategists have seen private polling in a number of states that shows McConnell deeply unpopular with his fellow Republicans. In Arizona they have found Flake trailing his primary challenger, Kelli Ward, a former state senator, by a significant margin.
Earlier this month, Sen. John McCain, Flake’s Arizona colleague, staged something of a gentle intervention, urging Flake to move more aggressively to repair his standing in the party, according to two Republicans briefed on the conversation.
Bannon taunted Flake on Tuesday night, suggesting that if the Arizona senator “doesn’t get a better poll in the next 30 days, you’re going to see him step down or the establishment is going to make him” — a possibility Flake’s campaign spokesman discounted.
“He is running,” said Will Allison, a spokesman for Flake.
In Mississippi, Wicker, a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has been gearing up early in anticipation of a revolt on the right, hiring a veteran campaign manager, Justin Brasell, and branding himself on social media as a fierce ally of Trump.
But Chris McDaniel, a Mississippi state senator who nearly toppled Wicker’s colleague, Thad Cochran, in a 2014 primary, said that Moore’s victory had made a challenge against Wicker “more compelling” and that he would decide by the end of October. He said he had spoken multiple times with the Mercers in recent months and had received assurances of support.
Wicker, he charged, had become “Mitch McConnell’s yes-man.”